A Symphonic March Down Memory Lane

By Ron Ciancutti

In the early 1900s, Pauline, my grandmother, was raised in a small village in Italy where refrigeration was nothing more than an inconsistently delivered block of ice stored at the bottom of a battered, old “icebox.” As a result, most of what was eaten by the family came directly from the land or the market. That meant the daily meal was likely fresh fish, many vegetables and fruits, and a side of pasta. These days it is on the cover of books and titled The Mediterranean Diet; her family simply called it lunch.

When my grandmother came to this country as a pre-teen, financial circumstances hadn’t changed much, and although modern refrigeration had come a long way, having the resources to fill that refrigerator was not always easy. Again, a daily trip to the market was likely, and the various “specials” or sale items were probably what my grandmother bought to stretch the family dollar as far as possible.

Somewhere in her mid-twenties, she became a bride, and while her husband provided a good salary and nice home, her habit of visiting the market never died. Grandma made the daily, 3-mile trek to the towering grocery store with its endless shelves of everything a kitchen would need.

Friends And Family
Years passed, and the routine remained intact. As a child, even I could see that she came to love it; it was her visiting time with Joe, the butcher, Rita, the vegetable lady, and Cora, the baker, who always set aside a loaf of crusty Italian bread for her buddy Pauline (by the way, Italian Mandate #273: “Bread with EVERY meal”).

Grandma was cooking more and more for her grandchildren, her husband’s sisters, my mother and her brother, and really anyone who happened to walk in. My dad was a particular favorite of hers as he was a big eater, and she enjoyed feeding him until he had to lie down on her living room couch on Sunday afternoons to let the food digest. When the grandkids ate, she would say “God bless them” and serve more food. In some ways she was making up for the years of poverty she had endured as a child. In most Italian families, the notion of being “invited over” is almost an insult. People drop in all the time, and typically they no sooner enter than the hostess starts asking what they would like to eat as she sets nuts, fruits, and bread on the table, and slaps a pot of coffee on the burner (it has to be a gas stove, by the way because one can only cook “right” with a flame).

Well, all this company—and most of it family—couldn’t have made her any happier. Surrounded by the people she loved and their compliments about her creations, she was probably at the height of happiness for such a traditional, golden-hearted lady.

A Daily Ritual
On one spring day around Easter (when she had cooked and baked all day and night), her daily grocery walk rendered a load too big for her to carry in the usual two small bags. The proprietor of the A&P, having seen her every day that he came to work, told her to take a grocery cart home. She could bring it back the next day. Such was the time (late 1960s, early 1970s) that people trusted each other that way.

And so it began. Every day, Pauline would push “her” private, chrome, A&P grocery cart with a red handle down Kraft Street to the store, select her items, visit her friends there, and push the cart home. So proud of that cart was she that often there would be but one or two items, but she always brought the cart.

The neighborhood always knew when she was coming because the cart was rolled quickly along the sidewalk, hitting the seams: “tick, boom, tick, boom, tick, boom,” with the small front wheels going “tick” and the big back wheels “boom.” That rhythm was locked in my mind as I accompanied her to the store many times, but she always insisted on pushing the cart because she said I might break it.

She started her daily regimen around 10:00 a.m.; the neighborhood saw her as a sort of late-inning, barnyard rooster. The “cock-a-doodle-doo” at sunrise may have been missing, but the second round came with the “tick, boom” of her cart. Folks always waved. Some met her at the end of the driveway to share a story, get a recipe, talk about the pastor’s sermon last Sunday, or share a family accomplishment.  The store, the cart, the cooking, the completely satisfying life of my grandma were all tied together with this little habit of daily shopping, born in Italy decades earlier.

A Treasured Discovery
While, in retrospect, her health and wellness workout of pushing a heavy store cart three city blocks to and from her house probably kept her in better shape than most women her age, she eventually succumbed to pancreatic cancer and died mere months after the diagnosis.

Within a year, my grandfather had a series of strokes and heart attacks, so it was necessary to move him in with my parents, as he needed more care than he could provide on his own.

As a result, the task of selling my grandparents’ home came on suddenly, and the kids and grandkids were dispatched to take the larger items out of the house. “Who needs a couch, a dining room table? Does anyone want this stereo? I could use that box fan, etc.” Then one morning, as fall was coming on and the place had long been emptied, I was preparing to go back to college. My dad asked me to stop over at their house and take one last look around to make sure all the loose ends had been tied up because a buyer was interested. I did a quick run through the house, and on a second thought I ran out to the garage. I couldn’t remember if anyone had taken the lawn mower, and I didn’t want to leave it behind.

I pulled the single bay door open, and sure enough the mower was gone, but in the corner sat the grocery cart that had been my grandmother’s pride and joy just a year and a half before. As a lump in my throat swelled, I walked over and pulled the cart into the daylight. Other than having a few cobwebs, it was in perfect shape; she always kept it that way. So honorable were she and my grandfather that I knew they would have wanted me to take the cart back to the store. But it wouldn’t fit in my car, so there was only one thing left to do.

Grandma’s Route
|“Tick, boom, tick, boom, tick, boom.” Up the street on that old, familiar route, I pushed grandma’s cart. The sound brought memories rushing back in a tidal wave of emotion, and, of course, to make the moment even more difficult, her old friends began coming out of their houses, investigating that familiar sound. Some of them only came to the end of the driveway, but they ALL seemed to know the story. Some just put a hand on me, some an arm around me, some kissed my cheek, and others just smiled tightly, too choked up for words.

When I got to the store, my lungs were heavy trying to absorb the sobs within. I pushed the cart into the rack outside the door, and the grocer came to the window. He looked at me, confused at first, but then a look of realization washed over him. He nodded, raised a hand in what I thought was a wave at first, but then he asked me to wait a minute as he disappeared. He suddenly came back with a loaf of Cora’s bread. He smiled, gave me the loaf, and put a hand on my shoulder as his eyes welled with tears. I returned his nod with a bow and walked back to my grandparents’ little house on Kraft Street. I was offended by the “House For Sale” sign.

This wasn’t a house. It was a home. A home once filled with people, laughter, bountiful meals, savory baked goods, and a quiet spirit that lit a candle for so many others without their even knowing it.

Ron Ciancutti has worked in the parks and recreation industry since he was 16 years old, covering everything from maintenance, operations, engineering, surveying, park management, design, planning, recreation, and finance. He holds a B.S. in Business from Bowling Green State University and an M.B.A. from Baldwin Wallace University. He has held his current position as Director of Procurement since 1990. He is not on Facebook, but he can be reached at ron@northstarpubs.com.